The Library

What is a vagina supposed to smell like?

3 Min Read
What is a vagina supposed to smell like?

Face washing twice a day? Check. Hand sanitizer in the handbag? Check. Brushing your teeth? Obviously. In short, we all live in a hygiene-obsessed world. 

For the most part, this is a modern marvel that keeps you healthy and clean. (True story: people in Elizabethan England only bathed twice a year.) At the same time, however, too much cleanliness can actually be a bad thing — especially if society starts to stigmatize parts of human biology that don’t conform to sanitized and odorless expectations. No, we’re not talking armpits or general body odor (although that may also be true) — we’re talking vaginas.

Every person with a vagina knows that theirs has a scent, and that this scent changes throughout the month or depending on the context (after a day in tight pants, for example, or right after you end your period). This leads a lot of people to believe that their vagina needs special cleaning or upkeep. 

That’s a total myth.

Because that vaginal “smell” comes not from uncleanliness, but from self-cleaning mechanisms. (Ironic, right?) 


So what is it?

The slightly sour musk you might smell after a long day reflects the highly acidic environment of your vagina, which actually serves the very important function of keeping your vagina healthy. Think about it this way: Every time you get an open wound, your body rushes to its defense, immediately starting clotting mechanisms and sending immune cells to fight potential invaders. Even then, you can still get a nasty infection. If that’s true of a minor cut, how much more of a liability is a much larger opening, in a dark, often damp environment that never closes? 

Let's talk about acid...

Acid is the vagina’s superpower. Unwanted visitors like bacteria and viruses are often completely debilitated when introduced to such a hostile environment. Near-constant secretions — which can also sometimes be stigmatized as “icky” — actually help further maintain this cleanliness, sex counselor Ian Kerner notes in his book “She Comes First.” 

The result is that the vagina is much cleaner than other parts of the body — certainly cleaner than your mouth — and can be compared bacterially to fresh yogurt. (Again, that culture is supposed to be there!) So why do people feel the need to clean their vaginas and vulvas when they are already so adept at cleaning themselves?

The short answer is cultural messaging!

In a September 2020 paper, researchers at the University of Guelph shot down the cleansing industry that includes feminine washes and douches — in other words,  the vaginal cleansing product industry. “The implied association in [product] branding… capitalizes on cultural messages that women’s bodies are problematic, unclean, inadequate, and require intervention through the use of cosmetic products to improve their bodies,” the researchers noted. And while capitalism is always going to sell people stuff, all those commercials and dedicated shelves do more harm than good. The industry “promotes unattainable standards of vaginal hygiene to sell products, some of which are known to be associated with significant health risks,” the researchers added.

That’s right: Using vaginal cleaning products or artificial scents to invoke cleanliness can actually do more harm than good. Like your stomach, a vagina has its own microbiome of healthy bacteria. Altering the environmental pH and removing the mucus that’s supposed to be there can kill off all that bacteria, leaving the vagina more vulnerable to unwanted invaders and inflammation. 

It’s not only scented products you should keep an eye out for: Douches have been linked to pregnancy issues and may still contain harmful chemicals that have otherwise been banned by the FDA.

The takeaway here is that vaginas are cleaner than people think, and would actually suffer more hygienically from the addition of a vaginal cleansing product. On the other hand, if a smell seems really off — as in, different from the usual — it might be time to see a gynecologist. This can be a symptom of a number of different issues.

But if anyone ever shames you for how your vagina smells, particularly if you’re in bed with them, tell them it’s supposed to smell that way — and that they and their impossible standards and stigmas have no business near it. You deserve intimacy with someone who likes what you smell like, no additives or products required.